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imagesHow much democracy can Detroit afford?

That’s the big philosophical question I hope Kevyn Orr, the city’s nearly all-powerful ruler, considers as he surveys his new kingdom.

The city’s legislative body, the City Council, is an easy target for ridicule, with its $10 million budget, a council president with an eight-person retinue, and council perks that include cars, a media staff and salaries that are relatively high even after 10 percent cuts.

A consulting firm hired as part of the city’s consent agreement laid bare the shocking numbers in a new report. The firm recommends stripping away staff, cutting salaries to part-time, and reducing the lumbering, bloated nine-member council to a lean, part-time team that meets once a week, in the evening. Five committees would disappear. Functions would be transferred to other city departments.

Change is long overdue because the council now is a model of inefficiency, using a system designed for a bigger city whose officials couldn’t tap Mr. Google as their personal assistants.

And, yes, the consulting firm is right: the City Council doesn’t need to micromanage every decision, approve every sale and transfer of city property within its 139 square miles.

But hold on, because Orr is going to have to find a way to frame the council’s work so that the people, and the city, can realistically plot the future. Efficiency can’t be the only consideration.

Detroit has a city charter — a new one — and traditions galore. It cannot function indefinitely without a legislative body that responds to people.

And it’s not Charlotte, N.C., one of the cities used for comparison purposes in the report. Charlotte has enjoyed spectacular growth over 30 years, not decline.

The report sets up a next-generation, high-efficiency Detroit, one in which council members would rev up their acts: Think terse speeches, auto-pens and council members jogging in their Nikes. I imagine all members would get a rubber stamp.

Conway MacKenzie, the Birmingham-based consulting firm, has some good ideas – but it’s unclear to me how a City Council operating in a city with 700,000 people can solve its problems in the same one-evening-a-week time slot as a city like Birmingham, which has 20,000 people.

A city is not a corporation, and from its website, Conway MacKenzie appears to work for corporations, not government. Have its directors thought about how the processes of government would change if their recommendations are followed? What about the city charter?

Hoping to find out how much Conway MacKenzie had thought about these issues, I emailed the managing director of the firm’s Detroit office. He referred me to another director. Then an outside public relations firm called to tell me Conway MacKenzie would have no comment.

If the efficiency experts need a chain of three people to tell me to get lost, my guess is that slicing and dicing government into a new lean form isn’t quite as easy as it looks.

This article originally published by Laura Berman in The Detroit News

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